Skip to content

Britain, Christianity and Islam

The differing responses to Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali’s interview with the Daily Telegraph on 6 January 2008 tended to focus on his claim that across Britain, “Islamic extremists have created ‘no-go’ areas” for non-Muslims. However, there is a different approach to a constructively critical engagement of Nazir-Ali’s analysis, one that begins with the Bishop’s view that “it is now less possible for Christianity to be the public faith in Britain”.

While Nazir-Ali’s comments were primarily about British Muslims, there was a broader context reflected both in his own remarks, and the Telegraph’s reporting of a recent Synod survey. This survey revealed that “bishops, senior clergy and influential churchgoers” consider “an increasingly multi-faith society” to threaten “the country’s Christian heritage”, while a third of those questioned thought that “a mass influx of people of other faiths is diluting the Christian nature of Britain”.

Nazir-Ali too made reference to the apparent disregard for “the distinctively Christian character of the nation’s laws, values, customs and culture” and towards the end of his piece he stressed the need for Britain to “recover that vision of its destiny which made it great”. This vision is one based on “the Bible’s teaching that we have equal dignity and freedom because we are all made in God’s image”, as well as “the teaching and example of Jesus Christ regarding humility, service and sacrifice”.

Before proceeding, it is worth noting that Nazir-Ali later issued two ‘clarifying statements’, (8 January and 1 February) saying that the main intention of the article was “to note that successive governments have failed to foster an integrating vision for Britain based on its Christian foundations”. “Such ‘separation’”, he continued, “will end only when the hosts can offer proper hospitality, not mere tolerance, and other communities can respond with openness and respect for the well-springs of British values,”.

Firstly, it is instructive to note what Nazir-Ali is not talking about: the health of the Church. His warnings are not primarily focussed on the vitality of the body of Christ in Britain, in all its varied – and often ‘fresh’ – expressions. Although there are a lot of references to a ‘Christian Britain’, the concern is not for the faithfulness, integrity and prophetic voice of individual and collective Jesus-followers but rather, the extent to which the Christian element in the symbols and structure of power in society has been reduced.

Yet surely as Christians our foremost desire should be to see the body of Christ flourishing, in all its denominational diversity, and playing its role in the realisation of the Kingdom of God? Not only is this very different to the question of to what extent is Christianity being appropriated by a state’s institutions, it is often in direct conflict.

Secondly, the assumption that Britain has a Christian “character” and “foundations” needs to be challenged. Of course, Christianity has had a presence in Britain for millennia, but this is not the same thing; similarly, ‘post-Christendom’ is not the same as ‘post-Christianity’. During the centuries when Christianity was intertwined with the edifices of political and economic power, this ‘Christian nation’ was responsible for slavery, massacres, ethnic cleansing, the Crusades, wars of conquest, colonialism, torture, and the summary execution of political or religious opponents.

One response to such a dismal summary might be to say that all of this simply demonstrates that Christianity fosters violence and oppression. In fact, it gives the lie to the claim that the British state has even been ‘Christian’ beyond the adoption of an ideology for the purposes of power. We can go further still though. Leaving aside the British state, and taking a look at the lives of individual Britons, who can deny that in 2008 we are an overwhelmingly secular society? Most would contrast that with the situation in centuries past, but to what extent have British people merely moved from being culturally Christian to culturally secular?

These are important questions because they provide one of the perspectives for how the discussion about British Muslims is framed. Let us consider the assertion reflected in the Synod survey that a multi-faith Britain “threatens” Britain’s “Christian heritage”. Firstly, there has never been strict religious homogeneity in Britain – ever since Christianity arrived on these isles it has shared the space with paganism, Islam, Judaism and more besides; not to mention the historically flexible definition of who constituted a Christian ‘heretic’. Nor, indeed, has there always been racial homogeneity, though even now, ethnic minorities only make up around 8% of the population.

Yet it is also true that there is a change taking place in Britain, as several cities look set to become ‘super-diverse’ where no single ethnic grouping is in the majority. But why – from the Christian perspective – should this be considered ‘threatening’? Why do concentrations of Muslims – or for that matter, Hindus or Jews – represent any more of a challenge than the fact that a far larger proportion of the population are either blissfully secular or wouldn’t consider expressing their spirituality in a church?

At this point, many will start to argue for the apparent ‘special case’ nature of Islam. But this is where the issue of Britain’s so-called Christian history and character muddies the waters. For a society to be truly inclusive as opposed to exclusive, and to be premised on the belief in the dignity and freedom of each individual, then the state can not be allied to one particular religion. Nazir-Ali’s use of the term “hosts” is important here.

While the relationship between a host and a guest can be mutually enjoyable and beneficial, there are limitations. By definition, the guest is never truly ‘at home’, even if urged to feel that way by the host. Even with the best intentions, the guest is permanently subject to the goodwill of the host, creating for the guest both a sense of insecurity and an implication that there are certain ‘house rules’ to be obeyed. The host and guest are separated by the issue of ownership too, with the latter never fully having a stake in key decisions that need to be made.

The other problem with suggesting that it is the Muslim community, other faiths in general, or indeed immigrants themselves, that represent a significant challenge or threat (again, a view tenable only with regards to ‘Christian Britain’ rather than the Church) is that it unwittingly or otherwise stirs up racial tensions. I am sure that it is not Nazir-Ali’s intention to encourage racism, and nor is an argument invalidated simply because it is distorted and misapplied by others. But a party like the British National Party has relished the post-9/11 polemics about Islam, proudly citing church figures who ‘back up’ their claim that ‘Christian’ (read white) Britain is being destroyed by Muslim communities who refuse to ‘integrate’.

There are other criticisms that could be added. Issues of inclusion are not unique to Muslims. One writer, supporting the Bishop’s remarks, cited the Muslim director of a Birmingham-based research centre, who regretted the fact that his peers “haven’t seen rural Devon, a stately home or Windsor Castle”. But this is hardly a ‘Muslim’ problem; most poor, inner-city whites have not made a trip to Blenheim Palace or signed up to the National Trust mailing list. While ethnic minorities are often disproportionately affected by poverty and lack of opportunity, the problem of socio-economic exclusion is not limited by race or religion.

It is worth remembering that religious or racial minorities have always tended to cluster together, a phenomenon common to countries all over the world and every substantial immigration movement. Someone from ‘outside’ the group will obviously feel ‘different’ on entering such an area, but whether one interprets that as ‘threatening’ will often depend on contemporary politics, and says more about the individual than the particular community. Moreover, there are sadly many ‘no go’ areas in urban Britain, where some of the local youth (Muslim, non-Muslim) participate in petty crime.

None of this takes away from the fact that there are indeed British Muslim groups and individuals with an agenda that is incompatible with the wishes of the vast majority of non-Muslims and Muslims in Britain. Regrettably, it is also unsurprising that with a past and present too often characterised by rivalry, suspicion, and political conflict, there are anti-Christian attacks (as indeed there are anti-Muslim attacks). Unfortunately, however, these kinds of events are made more likely by sensationalist soundbites, even if well intentioned.

There is another way, one that was at least partly outlined by Ekklesia’s co-director Simon Barrow:

What we need right now is not Christendom revanchism (an impossibility anyway), but the rediscovery of a Christian vision which is self-sufficient enough not to need to prop or be propped by the state, open enough to engage with others on equal terms, historical enough not be fall prey to nostalgia, and subversive enough to recognise that the Gospel is about overturning the status quo rather than wanting to be its lynch pin.

In 21st century Britain there is no shortage of anti-Kingdom currents pulling people along, not least community fragmentation and an individualism fuelled by greed-rewarding and profit-focussed economics. Thankfully, there is also no shortage of Christ-centred, fresh shoots springing up in every town and city, emerging from a plethora of denominational traditions and nondenominational communities. The Bishop of Blackburn Nicholas Reade, who also said that “terms like ‘no-go areas’ are nothing like I have experienced”, further commented in response to Nazir-Ali, “I think it is easier to blame the dilution of Christianity in Britain on the arrival of other faiths but the real cause is secularism. There is a lot of exaggeration but also a lot of very good news”.

The threats worth identifying and tackling are those that face the body of Christ, not a mythologized and severely compromised ‘Christian Britain’. In many areas of social concern, from environmental damage to urban poverty, influential Christians have an excellent track record in bringing to the table passionate yet nuanced, Kingdom-shaped solutions to the challenges facing all of us in Britain. There is no reason not to expect the same with regards to community cohesion and inter-faith relations.

Published by Fulcrum.

%d bloggers like this: